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What does Theresa May’s African dance signify?

What does Theresa May’s African dance signify?
  • PublishedOctober 1, 2018

Does the UK Premier’s recent visit to a few African countries signal a new relationship with the continent or merely a reinforcement of a one-sided arrangement? By Onyekachi Wambu 

When considering issues such as trade, it is always important to return to fundamentals. My ancestral homeland, in present-day Nigeria, has a tradition of dynamic longstanding markets. These developed over the last 2000 years after the Igbo made the transition from hunter-gatherers to farming, and began accumulating surpluses.

By the 15th century these markets were fairly advanced, and gradually became international, with one of our dialect groups, the Aros, dominating the long-distance trade. They sold goods from the coastal forest area (cola-nuts, yams, etc) for those from the savannah north (hides, salt, etc). Later, they would also disgracefully sell people along these trade routes. However, as trade developed, the Aros established expatriate trading communities all over Igboland, to vertically integrate their trade, controlling supply, distribution chains, as well as retail outlets. Some or these trading communities grew into market towns, sitting sometimes uneasily alongside indigenous landowners. 

It is important to re-emphasise all this, because we know that trade involves exchanging goods where each side boasts a comparative advantage. It also implies the freedom to migrate to new areas, not least to expand business. As people follow the transportation of goods and services, changes in cultures and societies inevitably follow. 

Bear all this in mind as we consider Theresa May’s recent African sojourn. With her post-Brexit need to establish new trade relationships, she set her ambitions for Britain to become Africa’s second-largest investor and trading partner after China. May knows Britain is already a significant land-owner and investor in Africa. As Mark Curtis points out in his work for War on Want, British-listed companies control over $1 trillion worth of Africa’s resources in just five commodity areas – oil, gold, diamonds, coal and platinum. As May danced her way across Africa, it is clear her jig is one of celebration and consolidation. She follows hot on the heels of other recent visitors to the continent seeking similar rewards, including China’s Xi, France’s Macron, and Germany’s Angela Merkel. But what should Africa be seeking in return? Where do we enjoy comparative advantages to usefully trade?


Recurring pattern

Obviously, a key area for African exports is unprocessed goods, especially agricultural products. Another key export area is labour. If we look at our longstanding trading relations with the UK, over the last 400 years, we notice a recurring pattern.  At its heart have been the same two areas – our labour and our unprocessed resources. 

Until 1838, labour was enslaved and put to work for free. A short interregnum followed slavery’s abolition, but barely 50 years later, from the 1880s onwards, full control was assumed over all our human, and unprocessed material resources through colonisation. This came to an end only with independence.   

Paradoxically, throughout the period of slave and colonial monopolisation of labour and resources, the UK remained a champion of ‘free trade’ and globalisation. However, the UK’s idea of free trade might be better understood as ‘controlled monopoly’ trade, with the slave or imperial overlord dictating/directing Adam Smith’s invisible hand. 

The UK has a tendency always to want its cake and eat it. It established a controlled trading empire which meant intermingling but then refused to with those it depended on. The British resided in ‘Government Reserved Areas’, the labourers in their ‘native’ quarters. The riches of globalisation were desired but not its consequences, including the inevitable human migration.   

This pattern continues today. The UK is on its post-Brexit charm offensive because it wanted the large EU market, but not the attendant freedom of movement, the main reason that triggered the Brexit revolt. 

Similarly, the UK now wants to trade with Africa – but is not really interested in trading African labour (one of our key areas of comparative advantage). Judging by the current visa regimes, the UK is also not interested in allowing our potential global businesses unfettered market access and freedom to circulate as they seek to vertically integrate their businesses. A serious trade deal that avoids being one-sided and puts African interests first, would include important elements about movement of labour, and market access for African businesses (including for raw and increasingly value-added goods). NA

Written By
Onyekachi Wambu

Onyekachi was educated at the University of Essex and completed his M.Phil in International Relations at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He worked extensively as a journalist and television documentary. He edited The Voice Newspaper at the end of the 1980s and has made documentaries and programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS.

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